By Dennis Abrams
Writing for Bloomberg.com, Virginia Postrel hones in one dilemma facing the U.S. book industry: Even though readers are, in increasing numbers, buying their books online, they still depend on physical bookstores to discover what to buy.
“In-store displays are the most common way, after personal recommendations, that frequent buyers find new books, accounting to about 20% of purchases, according to a survey by the Codex Group,” Postrel notes, and while online discovery is growing, it hasn’t come near to keeping up with online sales. People, it seems, are more likely to buy a book if they’ve had the chance to pick it up and flip through it. Or, as Peter Hildick-Smith, founder and CEO of Codex told the Digital Book World Conference and Expo in January, “Something is seriously missing with online retail discovery. It’s not working.”
Books, Postrel says, are what are known to economists as “experience goods,” meaning that they “have characteristics that are hard to observe in advance.” In other words, you have to use them (or read them) before you know whether or not you like them. That, according to Postrel, is one reason why people rely on the people they trust to recommend books, and why browsing for books is so important.
And that’s also why, in a physical bookstore, where the owner sets the rules, and where people have a chance to browse and to read the books they see on display, those “browsings” have a good chance of becoming sales. But as Postrel notes, at Amazon or Google Books, where the publisher sets the rules, “too many seem determined to keep your dirty eyeballs off their merchandise. Although some works are relatively easy to look through, often you can’t even read the entire index or table of contents, much less actual prose, because publishers or authors are more concerned with would-be pirates than potential sales.”
The other issue, of course, with online browsing is that even when you can “see” the book, “you still have to know where to look for it in the first place.” The joy of discovering something you didn’t expect to find, even with all the “Customers who bought this item also bought” suggestions in the world, is missing. In fact, and this might be surprising given the ease of purchasing books online, but according to Bowker Market Research, consumers are more than twice as likely to purchase books on impulse in a bookstore than they are online.
So, for Postrel, then, the bottom line is this: “For publishers and authors, losing bookstores is a problem because it makes it less likely that buyers will discover their wares. For many readers, the loss is also cultural and psychological. It’s enjoyable to be surrounded by lots of books and by other readers. Bookstores are special places in which to spend time.”
But they’re also expensive spaces to rent and keep stocked. And if customers are going to use the store as a showroom before buying elsewhere, what’s the solution?
Postrel has a suggestion freely offered to “the publishing industry, Barnes & Noble, or a tech-savvy retail entrepreneur: Instead of fighting showrooming, embrace it.”
“Separate the discovery and atmospheric value of bookstores from the book-warehousing function. Make them smaller, with the inventory limited to curated examination copies — one per title. (Publishers should be willing to supply such copies free, just as they do for potential reviewers.) Charge for daily, monthly or annual memberships that entitle customers to hang out, browse the shelves, buy snacks, and use the Wi-Fi. Give members an easy way to order books online, whether from a retail site or the publishers directly, without feeling guilty. And give the place a good name. How about Serendipity Books?”